A little more than a month ago, I spoke with Ted Zoller, director of the University of North Carolina Center for Entrepreneurship, about a column I was writing about whether entrepreneurism could be taught. He followed up with an interesting proposal.
“Help me teach the Entrepreneurs Lab,” he said.
So on Feb. 4, I was faced with the daunting prospect of lecturing a room full of students.
Thankfully, it wasn’t anything like that. The class wasn’t even on campus, instead it was across the street at the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, a sign that Chapel Hill’s startup strategy is moving outside the university’s walls and into the streets where it belongs.
“Partnering with the University on the Entrepreneurs Lab helps create a hub of entrepreneurial activity that brings together UNC faculty, start-up entrepreneurs, successful entrepreneurs and students,” said Dina Mills, program manager of Launch Chapel Hill.
This first regular session of the Lab included question-and-answer sessions with two successful entrepreneurs who have ties to the Triangle: Jed Simmons, co-founder of Next New Networks (now part of YouTube), and Amit Singh, co-founder and CEO of Spectraforce, a global IT services provider.
And some of the students at Launch Chapel Hill, including Jeff Henriod, are already founders.
In November, Henriod’s startup Let’s Chip In, a website and app that allow parents to raise funds for expensive baby items such as cribs, won Triangle Startup Weekend Chapel Hill and the first phase of the Carolina Challenge, which starts its elevator pitch round Tuesday night.
The program runs through the end of the semester.
Even Zoller thinks of himself less as an instructor and more of a catalyst, constantly keeping the students’ ideas flowing as they discuss markets, disruption, challenges and key factors for entrepreneurial success.
“I’m attempting to build a network of entrepreneurs who not only feel ownership over the class but also a commitment to one another,” Zoller said.
By the end of the session, I had taken seven pages of notes that included what I could build on, what I would change, where I could help and a few ideas I jotted down to come back to later.
But beyond taking notes and holding informal discussions, it felt like I didn’t do much at all.
Turns out that part of the program for educating these future entrepreneurs is to have them interact as much as possible with current entrepreneurs.
“I want our students to be embedded in street-level entrepreneurship,” Zoller said. “By interacting with founders who are actively engaged in start-ups, our students will not only be in a real-world environment, they will begin to see their own actions as real-world as opposed to just another class.”
Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco.